The Electoral Politics of Trump’s Diagnosis

Donald Trump and Melania Trump have been diagnosed with Covid-19. At a minimum, the president will spend early October in quarantine rather than on the campaign trail. Apart from what this means for his health, you’re probably wondering what it means for Nov. 3. The simple answer is “no one really knows.” But here’s what to keep your eye on.

First, the uncertainty regarding the virus exposure itself. It will be at least a week before testing and contact tracing can fully tell us who else has contracted the virus. Did Trump and his unmasked supporters spread it to members of the Biden campaign, or to campaign trail reporters during Tuesday’s indoor shoutfest of a debate? Biden has so far tested negative, but that could change.

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Who else on the Trump campaign will have to quarantine? Will Trump himself be quarantined for a couple of weeks while mildly symptomatic, firing off the same tweetstorms that have typified his entire Presidency? (He’s been pretty quiet since the diagnosis.) Or will he require intensive, ongoing medical support, reshaping the campaign with uncertainty about his physical well-being?

If Trump falls seriously ill and has to be hospitalized, then everything about this election changes: early voting has already begun in many states. There is simply no precedent for a Presidential candidate being replaced on the ballot at such a late stage. And in a digital information environment that is rampant with viral rumors and partisan misinformation on a good day, we have to worry that chaos would fill the resulting vacuum. Even if he only contracts a minor case of the virus, though, the campaign effects are likely to be substantial. That’s because Trump’s diagnosis effectively guarantees that the next few weeks of the election will be focused on the coronavirus.

There’s been some speculation that Friday morning’s news could actually end up helping the president’s campaign, boosting his support through pity or concern—a sort of rally-’round-the-flagging effect. That’s absurd: Trump has spent months trying to make the election about something, anything, other than the virus. This was clear during the Republican National Convention, where he and his surrogates declared victory over the pandemic and promised a vaccine would materialize before Election Day. It was clear during the debate, where Trump replied to Biden’s critique of his administration’s pandemic response by changing the subject entirely. The campaign’s best shot at victory lies in doubling down on mass rallies, ginning up a game-changing moment in the upcoming debates, and doing everything possible to focus public attention on “leftist rioters” or the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. If voters are left to ask themselves whether they’re better off than they were four years ago, the answer is almost certain to be, “No.”

Let’s say Trump quickly recovers, though: In that case, he would almost certainly offer it as proof that the virus is not-so-bad-after-all. His supporters would claim vindication. But that would not help him on Election Day. Trump’s goal over the next five weeks is not to win the argument about the severity of the coronavirus. His goal is to change the subject and have a different argument altogether.

The closest analogy for any of this from previous elections might be James Comey’s Oct. 28 letter to Congress about Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016. Few things really matter in the long arc of an electoral campaign, but Nate Silver has pretty conclusively shown that the Comey letter had an impact. Coming as it did, within two weeks of the election, it put questions about Clinton’s trustworthiness front-and-center in voters’ minds at the most crucial moment. The very last phase of the campaign was centered on her emails, and voters who disliked both candidates ultimately broke decisively for Trump. Had a different topic dominated the final weeks of the election, the outcome quite possibly would have been different. Trump’s diagnosis could have a similar effect in the final weeks of this election.

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Online misinformation, meanwhile, is likely to move into overdrive. This would have happened anyway, with foreign and domestic operatives spreading whatever lies and fabrications seem to be gaining the most traction via Facebook’s algorithms. But now we’ll have a better idea of which lies will be pushed: conspiracy theories surrounding Trump’s health, and how he got infected; as well as unhinged speculation as to the origins of the virus. Expect QAnon supporters to become medical experts. Expect rumors that Democrats and Chinese operatives secretly gave Trump the virus. Expect claims that the vaccine has arrived, but it’s being suppressed. Expect falsified news accounts about Covid outbreaks at polling places.

The final thing to keep in mind, though, is that there are still a lot of news cycles between now and Election Day. If Trump fully recovers in two weeks, that still leaves him with a couple more in which to try to change the subject. The White House’s efforts to shut down mail-in ballots, undermine the postal service, intimidate voters at polling locations, and challenge voting procedures through the courts will continue regardless of the candidate’s health.

That’s the one prediction we should be confident in right now: This has been the most chaotic election in American history. There’s still time left. Somehow, it will get weirder.


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